|Close-up of Trolls, by John Bauer, 1915|
News of strange goings on in a Pennsylvania huckleberry patch--caused by what were variously described as "spirits" "elves," or "fairies"--appeared in a few newspapers during August 1873. Because I realize the blog has been short on berry-loving, stone-throwing elves lately, here's this account from the "Savannah Morning News," August 30, 1873:
All Cumru township, over in Berks county, is agitated from the fact that a spirit settlement has taken up its abode in a narrow strip of wood about five miles from the city of Reading, on the road leading out to Kohl's mill.
It was a raw, damp night when your correspondent alighted at the roadside inn, about a half mile from the above place. The wind howled, and the swaying of the heavy branches of sturdy oaks creaked and sighed, and gave echo to the croaking owl away over on the mountain side.
I need not describe one of these quaint old revolutionary relics--these Pennsylvania country wayside inns. In the barroom sat seven men, whose sun-browned features and shaggy whiskers told of long years of toil on the farm and wood-chopping on the hills. A coal-oil lamp swung from a pendant, and a faint light shone out from a greasy and smoked chimney. The landlord, a large-headed, quiet personage, sat smoking a pipe, and occasionally peering over his glasses toward the corner I occupied. These men were earnestly discussing the visitation of spirits in their neighborhood. They were men of fair average intelligence and were persons of good standing in the neighborhood. One of the men gave his name as J.M. white, and stated that he was constable of the township. The remaining men were Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Henry Grimes, Abraham Miller, and Daniel White. They are all engaged in agricultural pursuits in this township.
I remarked to them that I had come a long distance to ascertain what truth there was in the report that spirit carnivals had been witnessed at night, and that stones and missiles had been heard to whiz and seem to whirl in all directions.
The constable turned in his chair, and with a look of deep earnestness told me that there was too much truth in it. "Have you heard anything definite about it?" he asked.
In answer to my negative reply, he delivered himself about as follows:
"We people here in this neighborhood are neither sceptics nor fools. I have not been constable of this town for six years without knowing and learning something. A ghost never trod shoe leather that would make me whistle. But the night that me and the rest of us went down past old Kohl's on to the huckleberry strip, and saw and heard what we did see and hear, has made me a better and wiser man, and a devilish perplexed one at that. There sits Abe Miller; he can tell you how the thing commenced."
It seemed an important matter to Mr. Miller, who emptied his mouth of a huge quid of masticated tobacco. He said: "Last Tuesday, Mrs. Daniel White, her daughter, Susan White, and Mary Hartz, three in number, went down to the huckleberry strip on Miller's farm for the purpose of gathering berries. They were there but a short time when they were startled by stones and clubs being thrown in the bushes. There was no person to be seen. After the first throwing everything was quiet. The women folks then heard strange screeching and unearthly noises resembling the hum of a steam engine. They were frightened almost to death, and stood riveted on the spot white with fear and trembling. Then of a sudden the air seemed filled with light and transparent shadows, that flitted about under the trees and above the heads of the frightened females. Then came slaps, quick and sharp, and the young ladies frequently received smacks on the sides of their faces, while Mrs. White received a hard blow on the back with a large piece of bark. The folks could not run, but were obliged to stand still and take it. They were with the spirits for nearly an hour before they could get out of the woods and hurry on towards home. They came back terribly alarmed and frightened. Miss White was considerably bruised about the sides, she having been struck several times."
I inquired whether the women had so stated the case. "Yes," answered several men in the bar-room, "this comes directly from Mrs. White, who would not tell a lie for the world."
A friend of Miss Hartz said: "I know Miss Hartz very well; she is a very sensible young lady. She returned from the berrying party very much frightened. She did not receive any injuries, but she saw spirits running about through the bushes, screaming and making other unearthly noises."
"What did she say a spirit resembled?" I inquired.
The young man continued: "She says that the objects she saw had human faces, white flowing gowns and wore long hair. They were comparatively small and very indistinct; so much so that she could not make out who they resembled. Certain she was, however, that they were spirits of human people. One kissed her on her left hand, which still bears the mark. It is red, and a dark streak is on the outside of it."
The landlord at this laid away his pipe, and with much consciousness of importance, nodded his head and remarked, "It's queerest case I ever heard of, and I know these people too well to think they would try to humbug anybody. Mrs. White is an honest and respectable woman, and her eyes are open; and when she tells of such a thing you can rely on it."
Mrs. White's husband owns the haunted huckleberry patch. He was a witness to the throwing of missiles. He is positively certain that no human hands did the throwing.
The constable at last said: "It's a good thing that you city people are never bothered with these strange affairs."
I asked him whether an investigation of the matter had been made, and he replied that there had. This was his story:
"The following day after the women had been so terribly frightened by the visitation, fourteen people were appointed to make an investigation. They were: J.M. White, Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Samuel Sweitzer, John Marks, Henry Grieves, Daniel White, Abraham Miller, James Schaeffer, Priscilla Marks, Catherine Good, Mrs. Daniel White, Susan White, and Mary Hartz. The women folks were not afraid when the men went with them. I, as constable of the township, led the party. We marched in a body down to the patch, and stopped just before going in to examine the points around the haunted place.
"The spot is a very lonely one, and very few people go there unless it is to gather berries. When we got ready we took hold of hands, and formed a circle around the spot where the women saw the spirits. Four of the women were then in the circle. Before I knew what I was about I was struck about the face, on the cheeks, and my hat was knocked off. The missiles came from a heavy clump of bushes, and we could see them plainly shoot up and over towards where we were standing. Four of us men made a dash through the bushes, but when we arrived there was nothing to be found. As soon as we got to the place where the stuff was first thrown from stones and sticks came from another direction, and to save our lives we could not see who it was that was doing. By this time the females became terribly alarmed; and, when a singular humming noise was heard and a strange smell pervaded the atmosphere, they almost fainted away, their hearts beating and thumping fearfully. My wife was in my arms, which explains my last remark. We could discover no traces of the invisible hands that threw the stones, but saw them come, and knew where they came from--but that was all."
The constable's story was corroborated by the remainder of those present. But the hour hand had swung around, and the old clock in the corner had struck eleven; the rain was comparatively over, and the men pulled down their slouch hats, buttoned up their coats, and sallied out in the darkness for home.
I turned to the landlord and enquired whether he really believed those men.
"Young man," he replied, "they are earnest in every word they say, depend upon it."
The next morning I talked with Mrs. Daniel White on the subject. She corroborated all I had heard, and stated that her back was yet painful from the effects of a blow she had received.
Miss Hartz, upon whom I also called, was positive that she had seen spirits. "Why," she continued, "there were so many of them that I really imagined the very air was full of them." But she was excused from further conversation, as she stated that it was extremely distasteful to her. She seemed to tremble as she described the appearance of one of the alleged spirits.
Miss Hartz, by the way, is a very prepossessing young lady, and I ventured to remark that it was no wonder the spirits were attracted to her. This did not even cause her to smile.
I then visited the haunted huckleberry ground. It is situated on the right of the road, on a gentle declivity. There are some undergrowth, large trees, and thick clumps of bushes. When I arrived a jolly old crow flapped his black pinions and cawed as he flew over through the mist toward the hills beyond. Taking down the bars I jogged along through some bottom and, and entered the supposed spirit and fairy circle. All about lay sticks and stones, and the berry bushes were tramped down in many places. Upon a twig hung a calico shred that had been torn from the apron of one of the frightened females, while near by lay a gaiter that had been dropped in their hurry and flight. The rain soon came down, and I was obliged to turn back toward the hotel.
When I reported my visit to the landlord, he remarked, "Can't help it; those people are sensible people, and know what they talk about. They were there also and saw just exactly what they told you they did. I believe they saw spirits, and I would not go near that place at midnight for the best horse in the country."
So. Either this was a very nutty hoax on the part of the good people of Cumru township, or something mighty weird was going on in those huckleberry bushes. As is usual with this type of alleged incident, I have been unable to find any follow-up stories to the mystery. I can only add as a footnote that historically, Pennsylvania has been a particular hotbed for odd tales involving witchcraft, ghosts, and all manner of sinister folklore. Readers of David Paulides' "Missing 411" books may also recall that he has observed that berry fields are, for God knows what reason, associated with many particularly bizarre disappearances.
That's about all I can say on the matter.